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February 2018

Book Review: RED CLOCKS by Leni Zumas

This review is by contributor Thuy Dinh, coeditor of the literary online magazine Da Mau.

In Leni Zumas’s lyrical yet unsparing novel, red clocks symbolize the identity crises, haunting wombs, ticking time bombs of five female characters: the Biographer (Ro Stephens); the Polar Explorer (Eivor Minervudottir), a nineteenth-century scientist and elusive subject of Ro’s unpublished book; the Mender (Gin Percival); the Wife (Susan Korsmo); and the Daughter (Mattie Quarles).

The bold crimson design on the book cover resembles an abstract, open-yet-closed vagina, which beautifully complements the epigraph by Virginia Woolf on the inside page: “For nothing was simply one thing. The other Lighthouse was true too.” Both the design and the epigraph reflect the ambivalence of inhabiting one’s womanhood.

In Red Clocks, four of the five women see themselves as disenfranchised from their ideal selves.

Ro, despite having a meaningful intellectual life as writer and high school history teacher, repeatedly fails to conceive by artificial insemination.

Eivor can’t author a book under her own name on the patterns of polar ice during the Victorian era, and is forced to use a male colleague’s name.

Susan, a law school dropout, resents the tedium of child-rearing and housekeeping while insisting a woman’s maturity comes from the fulfillment of her reproductive destiny.

And Mattie, a high school sophomore, aspires to a career as a marine biologist but gets impregnated by a vain and dim-witted boyfriend.

Gin, a homeopathic healer, is the only character who feels fully at home in her body and natural habitat. She, however, is ostracized as a witch by the townspeople.

While certain readers may be quick to label Red Clocks a dystopian novel, its depiction of a present-day United States where the Twenty-eighth Amendment bans abortion—and grants rights to life, liberty, and property to every embryo—functions more or less as a McGuffin. The harmful consequences resulting from this regime occur mostly offstage, and serve to heighten the characters’ conflicts but don’t represent the novel’s center.

Even without the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade and the abolition of Planned Parenthood, as the novel imagines, the characters’ struggles would still exist, because the idea of being a woman with choice is still open for debate in the twenty-first century.

Even without the fictitious Twenty-eighth Amendment, an unwanted or out-of-wedlock pregnancy still raises questions of decorum and ethics in certain milieu. Its inverse scenario—of a single woman wanting a child via artificial or in vitro fertilization—still entails considerable financial and emotional costs.

Zumas shows that her characters do not behave as a result of some legal construct, but in spite of it. Gin, who became pregnant as a teenager, did not terminate her pregnancy during the era when abortion was still legal, but chose to carry her baby to terms before giving it up for adoption.

Mattie, on the other hand, chooses to end her pregnancy despite the serious health and legal risks posed by the antiabortion regime. And Penny, Ro’s colleague at the high school, writes passionate novels in which Irish nurses have urgent and unprotected sex with hot, “britches-bursting” Italian stallions.

With humor and compassion, Zumas also describes how silence, judgment, and cowardice imprison her characters.

Susan, saddled with unruly children and envious of Ro’s freedom, nonetheless gloats that Ro is single and unable to have a baby. Ro, while mocking Susan’s choice of taking her husband’s last name, yearns for Susan’s lifestyle as a financially stable, married, stay-at-home mom.

Mattie’s adoptive parents are loving and protective, yet quick to judge unconventional life choices and cannot accept a scenario where Mattie might not be born. Even Gin, though kindhearted, will not save her lesbian lover from domestic abuse if that means she has to give up her own independence.

In lieu of pat resolutions, Red Clocks offer intimate, redemptive moments when the characters fully embrace their estrangement. It provides an excellent roadmap to the country of female awareness.

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Book Review: THIS IS WHAT HAPPENED by Mick Herron

Mick Herron’s standalone This Is What Happened begins in medias res, with 26-year-old Maggie Barnes hiding in a bathroom in a high-rise building during a dangerous spy mission.

Until recently, she was working in the corporate mailroom there, but then the mysterious Harvey Wells recruited her into MI5. Her ordinariness makes her the perfect mole, the last person anyone would suspect of bringing down an evil establishment.

But that average quality also means she’s no Jane Bond. As Maggie creeps around the building to complete her mission while trying to evade the security guards, her chances of failure and level of fear are high. It’s a killer opening.

And that’s all anyone should know before starting this thriller. Part of its impact comes from the discoveries. Herron (Spook Street) constantly throws in plot bombs to blow up expectations. His sentences have no wasted words; they’re just long enough to land their punches and leave.

The story goes to dark, disturbing places, but not without a sense of humor. Regarding current events, Maggie observes, “people would still fight for stupid reasons. It didn’t matter that clever ones had become available.” Another character intimidates someone by invoking a fake law firm: “Her imaginary firm’s title contained five surnames, and simply reciting them felt like an act of assault with a briefcase.”

Readers can trust Herron knows exactly what he’s doing, even if what happened may not be what happened.

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This review originally appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers and is reprinted here with permissionIt contains an affiliate link that could generate a small commission for PCN if used.

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Nerdy Special List February 2018

It’s Friday before a long holiday weekend for some. And after yet another school shooting.

When I’m heartsick, I turn to books to save me, and they always do.

Here are this month’s recommendations.

From Jen at Brown Dog Solutions:

A Forest in the Clouds by John Fowler (Pegasus, February 6)

While in college, John Fowler spent a year as a research assistant for Dian Fossey at the Karisoke Research Center in Rwanda. People close to Fowler wanted to know what it was like to work with the great primatologist memorialized in Gorillas in the Mist.

Fowler experienced a dramatically different Fossey from the one the world knew, and struggled with how to respond to those who inquired. Now, decades later, A Forest in the Clouds is his answer.

It engages the reader like a novel, with humor and drama and suspense. The African backdrop, exquisitely woven into the story, adds to the exotic atmosphere with its distinctive climate and breathtaking wildlife. Fowler’s insider story is a new perspective in the world of animal science.

Buy it now from Amazon

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South by Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington (PublicAffairs, February 27)

Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington’s story of institutional racism, junk science, and a broken criminal justice system is a difficult one to read, but incredibly important. Their history of Mississippi racism is mortifying, and the ways it still exists today are equally horrifying.

The pair use meticulous research to build their case against Dr. Steven Hayne, a forensic pathologist; and his friend Michael West, a dentist who claimed to be a bite-mark specialist. Hayne and West took advantage of the flaws in the system, and their greed had devastating effects on people like Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks, who were wrongly convicted of murder.

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist is rich in information presented in a captivating manner. It’s a real-life horror story about a problem that can only be solved through increased understanding and awareness.

Buy it now from Amazon

From Rory at Fourth Street Review:

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah (St. Martin’s Press, February 6)

After unexpectedly inheriting a homestead in remote Alaska, Ernt Allbright moves his family to the Kaneq wilderness. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder from his time as a POW in Vietnam, Ernt begins to unravel during the long nights in a hostile landscape.

The Great Alone is not his story, however; it’s the story of his resilient daughter Leni and the life she’s able to carve out in the wake of the family wreckage. Set against the backdrop of the tumultuous ’70s, Kristin Hannah has written a riveting novel of survival and brutality. Memorable characters and an unforgettable setting make this bittersweet novel a winter standout.

Buy it now from Amazon

PCN recommends:

Sunburn by Laura Lippman (William Morrow, February 20)

An attractive redhead with sunburned shoulders sitting in a bar in Delaware in the middle of a summer day. A handsome man approaches. They strike up a conversation, the start of something that soon escalates and spins out of control.

Sunburn was inspired by the work of James M. Cain, a master of noir and one of my favorite authors ever, so I approached it with interest but also some skepticism. From the first line, however, it was clear the description is apt. The prose is classic and contemporary at the same time, and even if you know how noir usually ends, Lippman makes Sunburn hard to resist.

Buy it now from Amazon

What’s on your reading list this month?

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Book Review: THE MAN IN THE CROOKED HAT by Harry Dolan

Jack Pellum is a former police detective in Michigan whose life was shattered when his wife, Olivia, was murdered 18 months earlier.

Since then he’s been posting flyers around town that ask whether anyone has seen a man in a crooked hat, a stranger Pellum spotted in his neighborhood shortly before his wife’s death. The sighting happened at night from a distance, and that description is about all he has. Unsurprisingly, it hasn’t yielded useful leads.

But after a local author commits suicide and leaves behind a cryptic note about a man in a crooked hat, someone contacts Pellum with new information.

The caller claims not only to have seen the hatted man when his own mother was killed years earlier, but also to have files of other cases, dating back 20 years, in which witnesses reported seeing a similar man before someone died mysteriously. Pellum embarks on a mission to determine if the cases are related and finally to avenge his wife’s death.

Though Pellum’s search takes him a while, readers know right away who Harry Dolan’s The Man in the Crooked Hat is—he’s identified in the very first sentence.

It’s the mark of a confident author who believes he doesn’t need to withhold the murderer’s identity to engage his readers, and Dolan is right. The surprises lie in how Pellum catches up to the killer, the humane portrait of a man who’s committed horrific acts, and in characters coming out the other side of grief to find they’re still capable of hope.

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This review originally appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers and is reprinted here with permission. It contains an affiliate link that could generate a small commission for PCN if used.

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